I seem to have hit a wall of silence on Twelfth Night, perhaps because I’m intimidated by my favorite Shakespeare or maybe I am still in awe of the play after falling in love with Peggy Ashcroft as Viola when I saw her at the Old Vic in my teens (Leo McKern, "Rumpole of the Bailey," was Feste). Still, I just can’t let the play go with only my “dramatic irony” musings, especially after Cindy gave us such a provocative challenge in December. So let me start by clearing my throat (a term I use for those often empty opening paragraphs freshman composition writers use when confronted by a blank page). How about: "from beginning of time until present the language of love has been depicted by poets …."
Ahem! Ya’ know, I’ve been around this play for 50 years and this spring is the first time I’ve noticed that VIOLA, OLIVIA, and MALVOLIO are anagrammatic. Now I’ve noticed it, what should I do with it?
Hem, hem! I’ve always known Viola. The Dramatis Personae names her. The speech tags identify her from act I, scene 2 -- Vio. “What country, friends, is this?” But, again, until this spring, I did not notice her true name is not spoken until act V, scene 1:
Were you a woman, as the rest goes even,
I should my tears let fall upon your cheek,
And say, ‘Thrice welcome, drowned Viola!’” (V.1.238-240)
Earlier she has posed riddles about her identity to both Olivia (“What is your parentage?” “Above my fortunes”) and to Orsino (“my father had a daughter lov’d a man”), then Sebastian has submitted her to a rather tedious identification process (which an impatient audience must greet with “well, duh; don’t you remember you have a twin??”), so perhaps this articulation of her true name at last suggests that all identity is a form of riddle. Is that too clever?
Ah, hem, hem! I was reading a most unShakespearean book, Victoria Finlay (no relation), Color: a Natural History of the Palette, about the pre-chemical histories of ochre, black and brown, white, red, etc. Finlay finds an ochre stone in Italy’s Valle Camonica, associated with Neolitic petroglyphs, then she is off to Arnhemland in northern Australia for another source of the first colored paint (boy, what a way to write off one’s travels on income tax). In her “red” chapter, she describes how in 1513, Vasco de Balboa crossed the isthmus of Panama (pace Keats) and found gold, silver, and the color red in the New World. This color comes from the female cochineal beetle—or “grana’ as it is locally called—which lives on prickly pear cactus, and soon the Spaniards had started one of the biggest color export businesses the world had ever seen. In 1575 alone about 80 metric tons of red arrived in Europe via the cochineal fleet, and by 1600 several trillion bug bodies had been imported. The fashion world reacted quickly, and Europeans demanded their cloth be made in this new deep red, crimson, often called either ‘grana’ or ‘in grain,’ and it was seen as the ultimate cosmetic [wait for it, Will Experiencers].
In Twelfth Night, act I, scene 5, Olivia at last removes the veil with which she has been teasing Orsino’s messenger, Cesario:
“We will draw the curtain, and show you the picture. Look you, sir, such a one I was this present. [Unveiling.] Is’t not well done?”
“Excellently done, if God did all.”
“’Tis in grain, sir, ‘twill endure wind and weather.”
“’Tis beauty truly blent, whose red and white Nature’s own sweet and cunning hand laid on.” (I.5.233-240).
Pun alert! In grain (cosmetic red) and ingrained (natural) tell the Elizabethan audience that Olivia is indeed a great beauty and also on the cutting edge of (expensive) fashion. [Footnotes for “in grain”: Riverside: it is fast-dyed, i.e., it won’t wash off; New Cambridge: indelible, not painted; Bevington: fast dyed; Norton: the dye is fast; Signet: fast-dyed, indelible—who says these guys don’t copy from each other.] It is a delicious scene; Olivia is underplaying her obvious beauty; Cesario zings her with a crack about cosmetics and women’s vanity; Olivia tops “him” with the little “Tis in grain” statement, seemingly understated again, yet, in 1600, claiming she is the confluence of both Nature and art. Lovely, indeed.
I would tell my students, after their essays were finished, to go back and throw away the throat-clearing paragraphs, but that was too much fun, so now I’ve seemed to have stumbled on Act I, scene v…
But first, Twelfth Night opens with what Stevie Davis calls Shakespeare’s “most hypnotically memorable and quotable” opening lines (or, at least, equal to those of Richard III):
If music be the food of love, play on,
Give me excess of it; that surfeiting,
The appetite may sicken, and so die.
That strain again, it had a dying fall;
O, it came o’er my ear like the sweet sound
That breathes upon a bank of violets,
Stealing and giving odor. Enough, no more,
“Tis not so sweet now as it was before.
O spirit of love, how quick and fresh art thou,
That notwithstanding thy capacity
Receiveth as the sea, nought enters there,
Of what validity and pitch soe’er,
But falls into abatement and low price
Even in a minute. So full of shapes is fancy
That it alone is high fantastical. (I.1.1-15, italics mine)
This epitomizes the language about love. Orsino, as most critics note, is in love with love, and thus one can suspect that these sentiments are a parody of amorous discourse. Certainly, this recalls courtly love, the smitten lover thriving on the emotion itself, the more unrequited the better, because the suffering is more exquisite. Orsino’s beloved cannot requite his emotion, because she has vowed seven years of mourning for her late father and more recently late brother, a perfect situation for a courtly lover.
Not only that, Orsino has sufficient wealth and position, that he need not himself sing sad (and bad) sonnets beneath his beloved’s window. He can send his minions, first Valentine, then Cesario with his verses. Both The Comedy of Errors (Egeon) and A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Hermia) begin with sentences of death, while The Taming of the Shrew (no marriage for Bianca until Kate is wed), Love’s Labour’s Lost (vows of seven years celibate study), and As You Like It (cruel Oliver denies his brother Orlando his birthright) all begin with a denial or perversion of nature, where youth naturally flourishes thorough love to marriage and fertility. And Illyria, too, is the scene of such an unnatural situation: the most beautiful, eligible, and emotion-ready woman vows “like a cloistress she will veiled walk,/ And water once a day her chamber round with eye-offending brine,” a reclusive melancholic, which enables (allow me a cheesy pop-psych term) Orsino to indulge in this binge and purge lyric to love.
Mike long ago (The Comedy of Errors posting) noted such water-into-the-ocean images, which here defuses love into some vast element. Yet these lines are beautiful, musical. The promise of logical argument in the “if”-clause, then four caesurae, flowing into the unstopped lines 5 and 6, “upon a bank of violets” (and we know a bank where the wild thyme grows), then reversed with a full stop in the middle of line 7, followed by a couplet, breaking the argument into an octet, almost evoking a nonce sonnet. This is the rhetoric of hyperbole, even metaphysical conceit, and it is hard for me to remember what an unnatural, narcissistic fool Orsino is. Orsino is to love as Volpone is to gold: “Hail, the world’s soul, and mine.”
Soon, Orsino dispatches his new courtier, Cesario, to the cloistered Olivia to “unfold the passion of [his] love,/ Surprise her with the discourse of [his] dear faith” though, aside, Viola confesses to that most conventional of fictions, love at first sight (which we know does not exist in nature): “Whoe’er I woo, myself would be his wife.” We have dramatic irony—Malvolio’s jealousy of Feste—and Olivia’s little disquisition on fools:
O, you are sick of self-love, Malvolio, and taste with a distemper’d appetite. To be generous, guiltless and free of disposition, is to take those things for bird-bolts that you deem cannon-bullets. There is no slander in an allow’d fool, though he do nothing but rail, nor no railing in a known discreet man, though he do nothing but reprove” (I.5. 90-93).I could not teach comedy without the idea of ‘the allowed fool.” And note how Olivia’s rebuke of Malvolio is also a critical commentary on Orsino’s earlier excesses about love. Soon, we have the fun of the veils, disguises and potential mistaken identities. Poor Cesario has memorized Orsino’s text and does not want the effort to be in vain. Olivia’s inventory of her features, no lips like Petrarchan cherries nor teeth like pearls allowed. But then, when Cesario does get to recite Orsino’s lines, they are merely the classic conventions of love poetry, Petrarch turned to cliché, and the lines are awful, declamatory—thunder love, sighs of fire, my master’s flame. Declaim these aloud. Lots of end-stopping here. But when Olivia asks Cesario what “he” would say to a rejection of love, Viola says rejection would be incomprehensible, and we get the lovely “willow cabin” response:
Why, what would you?
Make me a willow cabin at your gate,
And call upon my soul within the house;
Write loyal cantons of contemned love,
And sing them loud even in the dead of night;
Hallow your name to the reverberate hills,
And make the babbling gossip of the air
Cry out “Olivia!” O, you should not rest
Between the elements of air and earth
But you should pity me! (I.5.267-276)
Yes, Cindy, that is still my nomination for the best poetry in Shakepeare. Even though I have encountered hundreds of students who reject "poetry" the moment they hear terms such as synecdoche or couplets, yet nonetheless will write, when I am their audience, "this is a good poem because it has alliteration," allow me to point out this passage has only one caesura. Few end stops until it reaches the climax [sic]. Simple, yet fresh imagery such as "reverberate hills" and "babbling gossip of the air," which immediately cleanse my ear of "groans of thunder love." Forceful, active declarations: make, call upon, write, sing, hallow. I challenge readers to put themselves into this scene, with their name rather than Olivia. How could they resist?
Make sure to parse “pity” not as condescension but as feeling. I feel the intensity of the passion of love unfold here as in no other poetry I know. Meanwhile, we know that Viola is addressing the absent Orsino, who wrote the goddawful stuff recited above. Even old Thunder-love would have to hear this. And then Olivia's quiet “You might do much,” and her unnatural vow of seven years of mourning collapses in a moment. Dramatic irony, of course, in that she falls in love with a woman, but in truth she falls in love with the poetry, the language of love. Three hundred years later, Roxanne will fall in love with Cyrano’s poetry/soul rising from under the balcony. So beyond the situational irony, this is truth. Just look at Shakespeare, mocking Petrarch, and inventing the finest love poetry ever, more “true” even than in Romeo and Juliet.